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The British Flag on the Caspian: a Side-Show of the Great War

THE titanic struggle in the west left the British public scant leisure for following the fortunes of the "side-shows." Yet the "side-show" in Asia produced results that were important and far-reaching. From another point of view they were essentially dramatic, and proved British officers and men the peers of the Englishmen who made the reign of Queen Elizabeth illustrious.

The capture of Bagdad in March, 1917, was rightly held to be a great achievement, and the results were felt far and wide; but in the very same month the collapse of the mighty Russian army was started by the issuance of the notorious Army Order No. 1, which struck at the root of military discipline by laying down that the Russian soldier need no longer salute his officer. As the months passed, it gradually became certain that Russia had ceased to count in the World War, and in England even the man in the street began to discuss the ominous movement of German divisions from the Russian front to the west.

What was not realized, except by a few, was that the collapse of Russia destroyed the main protection of the Indian Empire, which was the chief objective of the Germans in Asia. It was, indeed, true that the southern route across Persia, which had appeared to the Germans so promising in 1916, had been closed by the capture of Bagdad. But now a much better northern route was available, via Batum to Baku on the Caspian, and thence, across that inland sea, to Krasnovodsk, Askabad, and Tashkent. At this period the number of German and Austrian prisoners in Central Asia exceeded one hundred thousand, and had the German staff been able to regain touch with this large body of veterans and form even two divisions, utilizing for the purpose Russian munitions, equipment and transport, an advance into Afghanistan would have compelled the Amir to range himself on the side of the allies of the Caliph. Moreover, upon receiving the signal from Kabul, the tribes of the northwest frontier of India would have risen immediately, and an overwhelming force would have invaded the rich plains of the Indus Valley.

The position was almost desperate and demanded measures involving the greatest risks, but British initiative rose to the occasion. It was decided to meet the enemy as far as possible from the frontiers of India and, in pursuance of this sound policy, to despatch a mission across northwest Persia and the Caspian to the Caucasus, with the object of inducing the inhabitants of the latter region to fight for their homes and thereby prevent the Turks and their German masters from taking Baku. The occupation by the enemy of this town, the chief port on the Caspian, would not only have constituted an important advance along the Batum-Baku-Tashkent line, but would have made secure their control of the priceless oil fields, on which almost the whole system of transport on the Caspian and in neighboring areas depended. Indeed, oil was the pivotal question. In consequence, to deny Baku to the enemy, even for a while, was of great importance.

Major-General Dunsterville was appointed to carry out this extremely difficult task. After many adventures in crossing Persia, he reached Baku in the summer of 1918 at the head of about one thousand British troops, and immediately set to work to organize the town against two Turkish divisions that were already knocking at its gates. Unfortunately, the Armenians were but half-hearted allies, considering that the British force was too small for its task. Moreover, the large Tartar population was bitterly hostile to the Armenians and friendly to the Turks, so that the permanent defense of Baku was an impossible task from the military point of view.

During this critical period the British Admiralty had also been taking thought, with the result that in July Commodore David Norris left Bagdad with his broad pennant flying on a Ford car. His advance party included two officers, twenty-two men, one 4-inch and two 12-pounder guns. The distance to be traversed from Bagdad across western Persia to Enzeli, the port on the Caspian, was seven hundred miles. The roads were bad, if compared with any metaled roads in Europe, and the strain on the cars was severe, but the party pushed steadily on, crossing range after range, until it reached Hamadan, where the tomb of Esther and Mordecai struck a familiar note for the seamen. Everywhere they aroused intense curiosity which was heightened by the fact that their mission was being kept secret. The Persians were naturally excited at the unwonted sight of the broad pennant, while the long barrels of the guns inspired respect. In spite of the bad going, one hundred miles a day were accomplished and, within a week of leaving Bagdad, Commodore Norris reached General Dunsterville's headquarters at Kazvin. He there ascertained that the Bolshevists had recently been expelled from Baku, and that the newly formed Centro-Caspian Dictatorship had appealed for aid, which the General was giving them. To anxious inquiries about oil-fuel, on which all naval action hinged, a satisfactory reply was given.

Commodore Norris had arrived on the scene just in time. Two days later he ended his long motor journey at Enzeli, where he soon took stock of the port which had been constructed by a Russian company, from whose representative he hired the wharves, sheds and oil tanks. Two British officers were placed in charge of the harbor and shipping, and they slowly evolved order out of chaos, for since the collapse of Russia everything, including the dredging, had been neglected. There were considerable difficulties to be overcome. To begin with, the Bolshevists were both powerful and hostile at the port and made mischief in every possible way, even pretending that the numbering of the berths was a dangerous form of propaganda! From Baku, too, there was much opposition, chiefly because the money for the hire of the docks had been paid at Enzeli, instead of at Baku --and money in the East is the root of all evil. The Commodore proceeded to Baku on board a chartered steamer named the Kruger, the saloon of which was adorned with a large portrait of "Oom Paul."

Upon arrival at Baku he carefully examined the harbor, which is a semi-circle running east and west, with the town in three distinct divisions lining the shore. To the west is a large oil field, the naval yard and the power station; then comes the important and extensive oil refineries and dockyards, which constitute the "Black Town"; touching this is the "White Town," which includes the business and residential quarters.

The position of affairs at Baku at this period almost defied description. The government was carried on by committees, which intrigued against one another, and by Russian and Armenian generals who gave contradictory orders, few of which were obeyed. The Armenians ought to have realized that they would be massacred in the event of Baku falling, if only for the sufficient reason that they had quite recently killed some thousands

of its Tartar inhabitants. Yet they considered that the British should bear the brunt of the fighting, while they themselves reserved the right to criticize their allies freely and unfairly. They also seemed to regard them in the light of universal providers.

To show how difficult it was to make the Armenians into serviceable fighting men, it may be mentioned that their machine guns were each manned by a group, and that when the men decided they required a change they returned to Baku without permission, taking their machine gun with them and, of course, leaving a gap in the scheme of defense. Again, when requested to dig themselves in, the suggestion raised a storm of indignation, couched in the words "Only cowards dig trenches. We are not cowards, but Armenians thirsting for the fight." They usually ended these protests by lining up and firing a volley at the sky, regardless of the futility of the proceeding and the scarcity of ammunition. The Gilbertian touch was strengthened by the fact that the power station supplied light to the Turkish Headquarters as well as to the town!

The strongest force was the Centro-Caspian Flotilla, consisting of twelve armed vessels, including two light cruisers, which had policed the Caspian before the Russian Revolution. It played entirely for its own hand and, being controlled by a committee, possessed little fighting value. To strengthen the hands of the Commodore, Gen. Dunsterville announced to him one morning that he had decided to make him a Rear-Admiral. Norris protested against this forced promotion on the ground that only the Admiralty could gazette him to a higher rank, but, failing to convince the General, he ended the conversation by saying, "Very well, Sir, if you make me a Rear-Admiral, I shall make you a Bishop." The Commodore on his arrival at Baku inspected the dockyards, which he found to be well equipped. He sent for the guns from Enzeli and efforts were made to take over and arm one or two vessels. This scheme, however, was strongly opposed by the Flotilla committee, which objected to the organization of another--and possibly rival--force on the Caspian.

As an interlude to the wearisome negotiations, Commodore Norris accepted an invitation to go on board the Ardagan, the Flotilla committee's ship, which had been ordered to shell Turkish trains that were passing along the shores of the Caspian within easy range. When he boarded the filthy vessel he found no one awake, but in course of time the stokers appeared, got up steam, and the ship started after its commander had waited in vain for a considerable proportion of the crew that had decided to remain at Baku. The men were friendly and presented the Commodore and his officers with a large tin of caviare. He, on his part, produced some sardines and other delicacies, which the Russian officers immediately devoured, to avoid being obliged to share them with the crew, with whom they messed. Meanwhile the Ardagan was steaming along the coast and fired at one or two trains at long range without much success. Norris suggested that the ship should approach the shore in order to gain an effective range. This was being done when the committee held a hurried meeting and unanimously declared that, in view of the fact that a field battery was known to be stationed in the neighborhood, the ship should immediately return to Baku. The order was, perforce, executed by the captain.

The negotiations with the committee dragged on, the Russians demanding that the British should mount their guns on the ships of the Flotilla and serve under its officers, while Commodore Norris, whose trump card was his knowledge that the Flotilla possessed very little in the way of ammunition, held out for British control. This trying situation was ended by the longdelayed Turkish assault. This was successful, for although the British put up a splendid fight, suffering twenty per cent casualties, the Armenians cut off to their homes and left large areas totally undefended. Gen. Dunsterville finally gave the order to evacuate Baku and informed the committee of his decision. Realizing, at last, the grim reality of the situation, they implored and threatened, one of the sternest "die-hards" telephoning to the Flotilla to open fire on the Kruger, while another concluded an impassioned speech with a request for passage for his family and himself. Thanks to admirable staff work, the British troops were all finally embarked and, with lights out, the Kruger steamed cautiously out of the harbor. But, suddenly, as the guardship was being passed, a member of the crew, which was composed of Russians, turned on the electric lights. The guardship immediately opened fire, and it was only thanks to good luck that the "Dunsterforce" reached Enzeli in safety.

Thus ended the first act of the drama. Gen. Dunsterville had done a great service in preventing the enemy for a period of six weeks from reaching the Caspian and obtaining possession of the oil fields. He had also occupied the attention of a large body of Turkish troops and many German officers, whose services were badly needed elsewhere. From the naval point of view, experience had been gained, which was destined to bear fruit in the immediate future.

Supplementing the mission of Gen. Dunsterville, a second mission was despatched in the summer of 1918 across Eastern Persia to Transcaspia, under Major-General Sir Wilfrid Malleson. Its object was to support those elements of the population which were hostile to the Bolshevists, and to prevent the western section of the Central Asian Railway and the port of Krasnovodsk from falling into enemy hands. Had the Turks, after the capture of Baku, been able to seize Krasnovodsk, the mission (which had been joined by the Turkomans and a number of Russians who termed themselves Menshevists) would have destroyed the railway line and thus have delayed for a long period the junction of the Germans with their fellow countrymen who were prisoners of war at Tashkent.

For a while, after the evacuation of Baku, the Centro-Caspian Flotilla held the trump cards and its action might have been decisive. As a matter of fact, the committee was unwilling to serve the Turks or the Tartars who were now the masters of Baku. It was equally unwilling to join the Bolshevists at Astrakhan, as its independence would have been lost. Towards the British there was deep if suppressed hostility and, had there been no garrison at Enzeli, an attack against them might have been attempted. At the same time, the committee did not wish to run risks, and finally decided to wait and see and--as the French wittily express it--voler au secours de la victoire.

The curtain was raised on the second act with the arrival of Commodore Norris at Krasnovodsk. He was received with enthusiasm by President Khun, an ex-ticket collector, who was a leader of the Menshevists. Unlike the unfriendly committees at Baku, this man helped in every way possible, and ships were speedily taken up and armed. The first to be equipped was the Kruger, the waist being filled with bales of cotton, on which four field guns were lashed down. These guns, which were manned by the Royal Field Artillery, could not be moved, so to fight them the ship had to be turned. But at this period it was all a game of bluff and, as a Persian happily put it, the Kruger looked very fierce. By the end of October five steamers had been armed and three more were nearly ready. When the great distance from the base at Bombay, the bad roads in Persia, the lack of a dockyard and the scanty personnel are considered, the results achieved were remarkable.

The equipment of this squadron coincided with the collapse of Turkey, and in the middle of November, two months after the evacuation, Baku was reoccupied by the British. On this occasion they had to deal with the Tartar population, for after the capture of Baku these fierce Moslems had massacred the Armenians to the number of sixteen thousand men and women, and now ruled the city. The Great War had been won; but as it had been decided to support General Denikin's attempt to overthrow the Bolshevist Government there was still ample scope for the activities of the little naval force that had been created. The situation was greatly improved by the fact that the railway line at Batum was now in British hands. On the other hand, it was known that the Bolshevists possessed a strong squadron at Astrakhan, which had been strengthened by destroyers of a modern type, sent across Russia from the Baltic. Early in December, four armed vessels started northwards on a cruise which marked the beginning of British control of the Caspian. Three armed Bolshevist vessels meanwhile attacked two British ships which were at anchor, but retreated when the latter opened fire. The British then bombarded and destroyed the Bolshevist advanced base on Chechen Island. These successful operations took place before the upper portion of the Caspian became frozen over, to the north of a line running a little on the Astrakhan side of Chechen Island on the west to Alexandrovsk on the east coast.

The British, safe from interruptions, now set to work to transfer their main base from Krasnovodsk to Baku, and during the winter the ships were re-armed with more modern guns; these were still, however, lighter and of less range than those mounted by the Bolshevists. Twelve coastal motor boats were received and a base, including an aerodrome for forty aeroplanes, was formed at the harbor of Petrovsk, two hundred and forty miles to the north of Baku. Finally, an advanced base was established at Chechen Island, which is ninety miles to the north of Petrovsk. Thus preparations were made in every way for the resumption of hostilities in the spring, and, in the meantime, the mere prevention of the export of oil from Baku affected the enemy unfavorably in more ways than one.

Early in the new year the question of the Centro-Caspian Flotilla became acute. It rendered a nominal obedience to Denikin, but wireless messages had been intercepted which proved that it was in constant communication with the Bolshevists. It was obviously a serious potential danger to the British and it was decided to take prompt action. The task was both difficult and delicate, as the Flotilla was in a position to give serious trouble. Fortunately the British motor boats, cruising about at twenty-five knots an hour, with their torpedoes ready to be discharged, rattled the committees badly; and after two torpedoes had been fired the Flotilla surrendered and tamely steamed to the moorings assigned to it. After this important task had been successfully accomplished without loss of life, the White Ensign of the British Navy was, at last, hoisted with befitting ceremony.

With the breaking of the ice the third act of the play commenced. Commodore Norris was anxious to try conclusions with the Bolshevist squadron before it had recovered from its enforced period of idleness. A study of the map will show that Alexandrovsk is, as already stated, opposite Chechen Island and is one hundred and twenty miles from it. As had been anticipated, it was now occupied by the Bolshevists, who by this move very foolishly fell in with the plans of the British. The operations commenced with bombing raids on Astrakhan and the bases of the Bolshevist squadron in the Volga delta, the airmen in their raids flying at least as far as in any other war area. Early in May, enemy ships were sighted and proved to be three armed vessels towing two large barges under escort of a destroyer. The enemy slipped the barges and escaped into Alexandrovsk, leaving the crews, which included an old woman whose white undergarment had been hoisted in token of surrender. The barges contained coal which was intended for the destroyers, and this was duly burned with the barges. An examination of the prisoners brought to light the fact that the full Bolshevist force was in Alexandrovsk harbor and that it consisted of eight destroyers, eight armed ships, ten motor boats and two or three submarines, which latter vessels, however, never appeared on the scene. To this force the British were only able to oppose five armed merchantmen, so that the odds, so far as material strength went, were all against us. Fortunately, in morale the odds were all the other way.

An opportunity to attack was now awaited. After two or three foggy days, May 20th broke fair, and a seaplane returned from a bombing expedition with the good news that the enemy force was still in the harbor of Alexandrovsk. The following day was equally fine and it was decided to attack. The harbor, an inlet some six miles in length, resembles a V, with the splay facing north. When the British approached they sighted a number of craft, including several destroyers, but these disappeared northwards, while the other armed vessels opened fire and then retreated down the harbor. With considerable intrepidity, Commodore Norris decided to follow, despite the risk of a submarine attack and in spite of the danger of shoals from which the buoys had been removed. As the little squadron advanced, it was possible for only two of the ships to open fire at the range, whereas the Bolshevist guns were in action throughout. Despite this, a large barge mounting two 6-inch guns was first hit and set on fire, and a second ship was also burnt. Meanwhile, the enemy retreated right down the harbor, taking cover behind various merchant vessels and also being protected by a battery of guns mounted on the shore. The British were finally able to get into range with their 4-inch guns, and dense clouds of smoke testified to the deadly accuracy of their gunners. Meanwhile, two of the British ships were badly hit, one of them, which by reason of its 6-inch guns was the "Dreadnought" of the squadron, becoming almost unmanageable. Commodore Norris therefore decided, after the action had been in progress for rather over an hour, to break it off. When the squadron was clear of the harbor loud explosions were heard, proving that the efforts of the British had been crowned with success. An attempt was now made to bring up the carrier ship with its four motor boats, but the wireless could not be worked and the opportunity was lost. However, the action, in which the British were strikingly inferior in the power and range of their guns, resulted in the sinking of nine enemy ships, including one large destroyer. On the following day the only available seaplane made no less than five bombing raids which confirmed the results of the British victory.

A few days later the British visited the scene of their triumph and found it to be deserted. Some fishermen informed them that two Bolshevist destroyers had, by mistake, engaged one another and that one had been sunk, but the Commodore did not add this to his total. Finally, bombing raids were organized on the "lame ducks," but they managed to escape up the Volga where, at any rate, their battered condition proved the severity of the Bolshevist defeat, news of which soon spread far and wide. Some weeks later, it was reported that the Bolshevist commander, who was only a sub-lieutenant, had been shot, and that his successor had placed his motor boats under the command of his wife!

Some months previously Commodore Norris had opened up relations with the Ural Cossacks, who dwell near the mouth of the river of that name. They had stoutly opposed the Bolshevists and were given a supply of munitions by the British. After the victory at Alexandrovsk, the Commodore visited their port, Gurieff, and received a warm welcome. He was made an honorary Ural Cossack, a distinction which has only been bestowed on twelve individuals, the other British recipient being Sir George Buchanan, the former British Ambassador to Russia. The ceremony of initiation was lengthy and distinctly "wet." These Cossacks were primitive folk, wearing their hair and beards very long. When they joined Denikin's force and were obliged to cut their hair and trim their beards their feelings were outraged to such an extent that they dispatched a special deputation of their women to remonstrate with the General.

During the summer the months passed somewhat monotonously. The climate was hot and trying, mails were few and far between, and the seaman did not take kindly to caviare, which is the delicacy of Baku, stigmatizing it as "that ------ fish-jam." One incident, however, caused considerable amusement. The Bolshevists despatched a seaplane to bomb the British and, in order to stimulate the pilot to perform prodigies of valor, they placed an emissary in back of him, with orders to shoot him should he betray any lack of courage. But the best laid plans are apt to miscarry, and these two men formed a Soviet in due form and unanimously decided to surrender. Accordingly, they descended at some distance from the British squadron and were soon in safety on board a British vessel.

Little reference has been made to the difficulties of the naval authorities in dealing with the Tartar Government of the State of Azerbaijan, as the town of Baku and the surrounding districts were now termed. For example, the President remarked to Commodore Norris at their first meeting, which was some time after the victory at Alexandrovsk, that he wondered why he never saw him or his ships at Baku. The Commodore countered by inquiring whether he had noticed any hostile ships bombarding Baku, and upon receiving the President's acknowledgment that he had not, explained that his absence was due to the fact that his ships were watching the Bolshevists and that it was owing to this that Baku was safe. This was entirely a new point of view for the President, who did not believe in what he could not see, but he had the grace to declare himself satisfied.

During the summer there was much uncertainty as to the future. Denikin twice attempted to capture Astrakhan, but each time failed. This was hardly surprising, in view of the fact that his staff attempted to arrange for combined land and sea operations, in which the British were to participate, without consulting the charts. Not that the charts were especially accurate, for those used by the British were fifteen miles out on the eastern side of the Caspian. When this was pointed out to a Russian naval officer he replied "Nichevo--it is nothing--for the topography on the western side is nine miles out"!

In the early autumn the curtain was rung down on this gallant little "side-show" of the Great War. Orders were issued for the ships, munitions and stores to be handed over to representatives of Denikin, who showed their zeal by opening dozens upon dozens of tins of bully beef, presumably to assure themselves that they did not contain brickbats. The British, who had wished to see the matter through, had serious fears for the future, since Denikin, an honest patriot, was surrounded by many of the old official class who were intensely disliked by the people.

When the actual handing over began, the Baku Government, which was seriously alarmed, claimed to receive an equal number of ships and offered the command to the Commodore, the value of whose services they finally appreciated. When two heavy guns that had been mounted on shore came to be dismantled and the breech blocks were removed, the Tartar Governor actually made a bid of one million roubles for them. During the evacuation, Baku was flooded with Bolshevist literature, couched in good English and explaining that the British were fighting on the side of reaction against the forces of labor and progress. Each section of the appeal wound up with "Why don't you go home?" which question hugely amused all ranks. Less appreciated was the Admiralty order giving instructions for salutes to be fired and the main brace spliced in honor of the signature of the Peace Treaty. As the principal part of the manoeuvre referred to above consists of serving out a double tot of rum, of which there was not on hand a drop, Commodore Norris was obliged to reply regretfully that the order was impossible of execution.

On August 24th the evacuation was completed, and the Commodore and his staff were entertained at a great banquet. Many speeches were made, testifying to the gratitude felt for the work of the British and to the deep regret over their departure. The next day the train moved off to Batum and home with the band playing Tipperary.

At the beginning of this little account a reference was made to our valiant ancestors of the Elizabethan era. A notable figure among them was Anthony Jenkinson, the first Englishman to sail down the Volga and to launch out across the Caspian Sea to Persia. In the vivid account of his adventures he wrote, with pride of race, that, "During the time of our nauigation, wee sette vppe the redde crosse of Saint George in our flagges." May we not hope that his heroic spirit has learnt how his descendants, three centuries later, hoisted the White Ensign in the same remote inland sea?

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